For many years, the beer industry has been plagued by sexism — a minority of breweries have persisted in marketing their products in ways that would be unthinkable in any other industry, but with the rise of craft beer and, in the aftermath of the Weinstein scandal and #metoo protests, there finally seems to be some progress towards reform.
Wild Card Brewery’s Head Brewer Jaega Wise has spoken passionately about the need for a collective effort to stamp out sexism in the beer industry. In January she was elected as South East Director of SIBA (the Society of Independent Brewers) and in September she was listed by the Evening Standard as one of the Progress 1000 — London’s most influential Tastemakers. We visited Wild Card’s Lockwood brew site in Walthamstow to talk to Jaega about standing out, having a voice and who she’d like to have a pint with.
A Studio of Our Own (ASOOO): In November last year you were at Brewers Congress talking about the representation of Women in the Beer Industry. Since then you’ve joined SIBA as a director and a new Code of Practice has been announced to try to tackle offensive and sexist beer marketing. Moorhouse has changed all of its branding, renaming beers including ‘Blonde Witch’, and Ales by Mail have made a statement saying they won’t stock anything deemed sexist or offensive. It seems that after a long time waiting for progress, things are beginning to move. Can you talk to us a bit about the background to all of this?
Jaega Wise (JW): It’s been kind of crazy. We’re not there yet, and we haven’t solved anything in particular, but I’m really keen to get all the noise that’s been made into something tangible, something written down on paper, some legislation. It really is quite shocking when you see the things that have been deemed to be OK within the brewing and beer industry. They just wouldn’t be accepted elsewhere. If we can get these three things – more data and information on women in beer, a marketing and advertising code of practice and a ban on beers with sexist imagery and branding entering SIBA and CAMRA festival competitions – then we can move on.
"It really is quite shocking when you see the things that have been deemed to be OK within the brewing and beer industry. They just wouldn’t be accepted elsewhere."
ASOOO: As one of the few female brewers in the industry, what kind of resistance have you come up against?
JW: I work with SIBA and we’re trying to introduce a code of practice which will affect lots of independent breweries across the country. I went to the SIBA AGM in Liverpool recently and got pretty destroyed.
The purpose of the debate was to talk about what the code of practice should look like and how far it should go, really to generate feedback and input. But I ended up having to defend myself and the code which I wasn’t expecting to have to do. I was pretty shocked.
It’s the first time I’ve been in a situation where sexism was not accepted as a bad thing. So, while it was personally, incredibly difficult, it was also incredibly useful to see how far we have to go.
"As a beer industry, this year we had declining sales in the UK. The craft sector is up but generally, sales are down. So as an industry we need to be trying to get market share, not fighting internally."
ASOOO: It’s not only that there has been a culture that allows sexist marketing, but also that some parts of the industry aren’t doing enough to attract young a young and diverse audience. Would you agree with that?
JW: I’m from the Midlands: the land of the cask pale ale, so I identify with CAMRA [the Campaign for Real Ale] but I live in London, I’m young and am an independent brewer. So I have a foot in both camps. I just think everyone needs to talk a bit more. There are lots of things going on in both camps: the craft brewing industry needs to be more diverse and less exclusive and CAMRA need to reach out to a whole host of different people.
As a beer industry, this year we had declining sales in the UK. The craft sector is up but generally, sales are down. So as an industry we need to be trying to get market share, not fighting internally. It is just beer, however it’s packaged, and we can all be friends.
ASOOO: For those people who don’t know your history, can you tell us how you got into brewing?
JW: I was brought in to Wild Card by two old uni friends from Nottingham – Andrew and Will. I’d done a chemical engineering degree and was working in chemical trading in London – which I wasn’t enjoying – when the guys approached me to help them to brew. I’d always home brewed back at home so I quit my job and decided to help them out. And here we are six years’ later.
PIO: When you joined them were you aware of the exclusivity in the industry?
JW: Yes I was, I’d been to a lot of beer festivals and pubs and it had always been pretty obvious. I remember going to beer festivals and back then they didn’t feel like a very welcoming place for a female.
"If I had said something to every single person who was rude or offensive to me, I wouldn’t have a business."
ASOOO: Were you consciously trying to change perception when you launched Wild Card? Or is that something that’s evolved over time?
JW: No, it wasn’t on my mind, I come from engineering, where it’s not unusual to be the only girl, so although it’s something I was warned about, I didn’t have a chip on my shoulder about it. What got it for me — right up to the point of the brewer’s conference — was years of niggles, all sorts of things, like the guy that put our kit in called me ‘a c*nt’, like the landlord who doesn’t speak to me because I’m female, and you’re the only girl in a warehouse environment. There’s always some comment.
There’s also groups of female brewers that have sprung up that weren’t there when we started out. When you meet up with a group of likeminded people who are saying the same thing, it becomes harder to accept the bad behaviour. It’s not what you have to accept.
I get asked why I didn’t say anything in the early days but the reality is that if I had said something to every single person who was rude or offensive to me, I wouldn’t have a business. Especially in the beginning when it was almost a daily occurrence. But I don’t get it as much anymore.
ASOOO: Do you think that’s because the industry is changing?
JW: I think people are just used to me. Or maybe I take less shit I’m not sure.
ASOOO: Final question on sexism in brewing — what further changes do you want to see?
JW: The Moorhouse thing in particular, I think they’ve handled really well and with class. They were a bad offender. This isn’t an argument about censorship, it’s just about human decency and it’s about helping the industry. The question is, do you or do you not want to encourage more women in the industry? Do you want more female consumers? We have the lowest number of drinkers in Europe.
ASOOO: When you came into the industry, what were your ambitions, your goals and how have they changed over time?
JW: Our first goal was to be viable! And that went on for a good couple of years. The mission the first year was to be able to pay ourselves, that’s all you’re thinking about – getting through the month and being able to sell enough beer. When we first started out, we were knocking on people’s doors, trying to sell Jack of Clubs.
Compare that to last summer, when we had to brew it fourteen times in a row because people wanted it so much! So, there was no thought about shaking anything up — it was all about how do we make something sustainable. I will never moan about having to brew the same thing — you brew what people want to buy because that’s what pays the bills.
"We perfected [Jack of Clubs] at home, and it was different and very rich and nothing like anything else on the market. It gave us a point of difference."
ASOOO: What helped you to stand out from the crowd when you launched?
JW: We started with Jack of Clubs, a ruby ale, with lots of toffee and caramel flavours, and just made that exclusively for a year and a half. That’s a bit weird for a new brewery, most people come out with a pale ale, but we wanted to do something different. We perfected this recipe at home, and it was different and very rich and nothing like anything else on the market. It gave us a point of difference. And then we had this playing card tied around each bottle, so people remembered us and wanted to find out more. When you’re that small you need anything you can get.
ASOOO: Where did the branding expertise come from?
JW: Lots of friends! An artist friend of ours, Andrew’s housemate at the time, created the original label, and Will – who has a great eye – thought the tie was a great point of difference (I thought it was a bad idea which is why I’m just responsible for the contents!).
ASOOO: What happened between you knocking on doors to sell your beer to opening this space up in Walthamstow?
JW: A very slow incline. We started out with all these really big projections of selling 4-500 cases a month, from zero. But that just didn’t happen. We started off selling 10 cases, then 15 and then 20. A slow rise, lots of hard work. There was no eureka moment. When we meet people who met us five years ago and then they see where we are now, we realise how far we’ve come. Kitting out this new space is a big jump but it’s one we feel ready for and it’s manageable, because we’ve grown with what we can handle. Two years’ ago, we wouldn’t have been able to cope either physically or mentally.
"We have a spreadsheet that everyone here at Wild Card can put an idea on. Once a month I’ll homebrew the best three ideas and we sit around and taste."
ASOOO: At Wild Card you started with a red ale and still produce a lot of experimental beers in small batches. What inspires the experimental approaches you’ve tried — is it instinct, or do you ever try to brew deliberately with a specific market in mind?
JW: Anywhere! Could be something you’ve tried, something you’ve eaten. Doesn’t have to be beer. We have a spreadsheet that everyone here at Wild Card can put an idea on. Once a month I’ll homebrew the best three ideas and we sit around and taste.
For the London Drinker, I home brewed a lime beer that was borne out of our team brainstorming. It did really well so I think we’ll bring it back commercially. It’s 2.1% and it’s like drinking lemonade. In the summertime, I could drink it all day.
ASOOO: A lot of the bigger breweries are trying desperately to look like independent craft breweries. What do you think it is about small breweries that’s so attractive to beer drinkers?
JW: I think it’s a shift towards locality, among a lot of different sectors, not just the beer industry. People are so involved in tech, their lives move so fast, there’s loads going on, that I think it’s nice for people to pull it back and think ‘this is brewed down the road’.
ASOOO: Do you think it’s easier coming into the industry now because craft beer isn’t such an unknown, or do you think it’s harder because there’s more competition?
JW: I think you’re going to have a harder time now, because there’s no room for mistakes anymore. It’s a lot less forgiving. That said, there are still lots starting up and I’d love to see where it goes. The competition means that the strong will survive, and not in a bad way, and it means beer will be available everywhere. If you go to New York and to a local store there, the beer selection is just amazing — packed full of breweries — and that’s just a normal store. We don’t have that here.
The craft beer industry is a strong community. Here in London we have the London Brewers Alliance and we get together regularly and all have a drink. Everyone knows each other and there’s a forum, where you can post questions and someone will respond. The craft brewing industry is a friendly industry in general. And if Beavertown gets a tap somewhere that simply means that as Wild Card, we might be able to get the tap next to them. Individually we’re weak but collectively we’re quite strong.
ASOOO: What forms of marketing have you explored to get your name out there?
JW: Lots of social media, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, everything that’s free. The other thing we’ve really relied on is our locality. Walthamstow is a massive part of our background, we live here and before we started Wild Card, we’d go to the local pubs, I had a job in a local pub, they were the first one we sold to. When we crowdfunded, the platform said they had the largest amount of new users come onto the platform, and that’s because people came on to the site for us, because we’re local. People have watched us grow from a tiny egg and explode. We try and be as inclusive as possible to encourage different elements of society to come into our beers.
ASOOO: What are your plans for the future?
JW: We’re still taking things one step at a time but we’ve some really exciting specials for 2018. We’ve made a NEIPA – New England IPA – which has got to be insanely hoppy, double dry hopped – or quad hopped as I call it – with a low bitterness, and it has to be so cloudy and thick it’s almost yoghurt-like: a hoppy dream. Made one of them and it went mental, and sold quickly, so we might do that again. We’ve got the new branding coming out and some rotational bottles and cans. We are brewing lots and lots more beer, the schedule is turned up by 1000% moving in to our new premises: we’re going up to 20,000 litres a week, so it’s a big jump. We’ll use our old site at Ravenswood for barrel ageing.
ASOOO: Finally, if you could have a pint of beer with anyone who would it be?
JW: I would say the late Stephen Hawking, that would be incredible. He was literally a genius.
ASOOO: What would you drink?
JW: It would have to be something with some serious depth… like a 10% Russian imperial stout!